To Tutor or Not to Tutor

September 2002, By Cheryl Feuer Gedzelman

Our tutoring agency receives many types of calls – some for remediation, others for homework support, and still others for enrichment. The calls I dislike are those that come in March or later from a parent who says, “My child is failing all his subjects.” I am very polite but am thinking, “Why did you wait so long? Where have you been? How can a twice-a-week tutor or even an every-day tutor hope to catch up on 7/9 of a year of material in all subjects?” Sometimes the tutor can help the student raise the grade from an F to a D or C, but catch up? I don’t think so. The student will surely be at a deficit the next year.

If you are reluctant to hire a tutor until absolutely necessary, there is much you can do at home. However, if home study techniques do not work, a tutor can help immensely. Be proactive. Do not wait until your child falls too far behind.

Homework: Failure to hand in assignments is one of the most frequent causes of poor grades. From the beginning of the school year, make sure your child is completing the required homework and turning it in. Unfortunately, simply asking your child if the homework is done and receiving a YES is often not enough. It is usually easy to stay in touch with teachers through e-mail. By the end of September, find out from all your child’s teachers whether homework is being completed and how well. Ask what you can do to help. By the end of October, contact all the teachers again. If homework is not completed sufficiently, try to find out why. Start by asking your child. Is the homework too difficult? Is your child unclear about the requirements of the assignments? Or is he too busy with other activities and unmotivated to do homework? Here are some guidelines to help monitor the homework process:

Set up a homework area for each of your children that is clear of clutter, has basic supplies, and is in a quiet part of the house.

Set a regular time of day to do homework, and be available to answer questions and provide support during that time. Do not do homework for your child. You can help by asking questions and giving hints to help him figure out the problem.

Hold incoming phone calls until homework is completed.

Be firm. Make sure your child understands that you expect homework to be done at a certain time.

Offer incentives to finishing homework such as small treats or privileges.

Offer praise for a job well done. Have your child keep standards of quality and neatness, and pride for good work.

Some parents are able to effectively help their children with homework. Others are too busy working, taking care of small children, or doing housework. Some parents do not have the academic knowledge to help their children. Others clash because their children do not want to listen to their parents, but might respond better to a “professional” from the outside. If your child is not completing homework because he finds it too difficult and you are unable to help, hiring a tutor may be the answer. However, if your child is perfectly capable of completing homework but is unmotivated due to outside interests, you may need to be more firm and restrict other interests, such as TV, computer, and socializing, until homework is completed. The best candidates for tutors are motivated students.

Tests: Some students complete homework very well but score poorly on tests. These students either practice poor test taking techniques or have test anxiety. Some students perform better on multiple choice tests, and others perform better on essay tests. When I was a student, I was terrible at multiple choice tests. While my middle school grades were generally quite good, I received D’s on social studies tests because they were multiple choice tests that required memorization of many details. By high school, I received very high scores in the New York State Regents standardized tests, which are multiple choice. I had learned some memorization techniques and completed many practice tests.

A tutor can help with test taking skills by working on the student’s weak areas. These may include study skills such as memorization strategies, taking practice tests, and essay writing. A student may know everything about a topic and perform swimmingly on an oral test, but fail a written test due to poor writing skills.

Study Skills: Many students have no clue how to effectively study for an exam. Some will not study at all, claiming they already know the material. Others skim the text and their notes, and then claim that they studied. Some effective studying techniques include:

For math tests, do many practice problems and check the answers

For social studies, learn how to find the main ideas and design a study sheet and/or flash cards; work with one or two study partners

For spelling, use flash cards and have someone test the student

For social studies and literature, write questions that you think may be asked and try to answer them.

Review all material using these techniques on a regular basis, not just before test.

These are just a few of many active study techniques, which can be taught by a tutor. I believe that study skills are best taught when integrated into subject tutoring. For example, mnemonic memorization strategies, such as making up silly acronyms or stories to memorize details, can be integrated into social studies tutoring sessions.

Organization Skills: Some students are unable to complete their homework or study effectively due to poor organization skills. This deficit is especially prevalent among individuals with ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) and learning disabilities. A tutor can teach organization skills such as prioritizing, highlighting, organizing notebooks, breaking down large tasks into smaller ones, and planning for long term assignments. Some students can work with a tutor briefly, learn these skills, and then use them independently. Others benefit from using tutors on a long term basis to keep them organized.

Teachers: Many teachers keep parents informed concerning when their children are falling behind or need extra help. We also hear of a few teachers who tell parents that their children are doing fine when a parent may notice herself that a child is struggling with reading or writing. Certainly get feedback from teachers, but be sure to watch your child closely as well. Remember that many class sizes are quite large, and your child’s teacher cannot observe him like you can.

Remediation: The bulk of our calls are from students who are behind where they should be in reading, writing, math, Spanish, or some other subject. Look for signs that your child is behind:

He struggles and complains, particularly concerning one subject.

It takes hours to complete the homework, and even then it contains numerous errors.

She does not like to read anything for pleasure. What she does read comfortably is below grade level. She cannot describe something she has read.

He cannot move ahead comfortably in math because he is having difficulty getting past math facts, long division, fractions, etc.

She struggles with social studies because she has difficulty with reading comprehension and lacks efficient studying strategies.

He does poorly on written assignments not because he does not know the subject matter, but because his writing needs work.

Catching up is hard to do because the classes keep moving further and further ahead. However, if no one at home is able to help effectively, a weekly or biweekly tutor can.

Test Scores: Standardized tests show where students rank compared to other children locally and nationally. If you are concerned with your child’s test scores, discuss them with her teacher. This is just another way to get information as to how well your child is doing.

Confidence: Is your child confident about school? Many parents hire tutors just to boost confidence. The grades might be OK, but the student may be feeling unsure and may need a boost.

Enrichment: Some parents hire tutors for enrichment in reading, writing or math. Some students are bored in school and need to be challenged further.

Sudden Change: Many of our calls are from parents whose children were doing fine until recently, when grades began to plummet. Often this happens in seventh grade, when a student who is used to one teacher suddenly has to juggle many teachers and accompanying homework. This is especially daunting for the organizationally challenged student. Other sudden drops in grades may result from emotional turmoil related to family or social situations. In this case, your child may need therapy first and then a tutor to catch up.

Listen and Watch: Most importantly, pay attention. Does your child complain that schoolwork is too difficult, confusing, or overwhelming? Does he protest that there is too much work? Is reading a book, doing homework, or studying very stressful? Hiring a tutor may provide the boost he needs.

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